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The challenge

Cost-effective technologies and meaningful abatement

The amount and form of organic carbon plays an important role in soil process and function, the underpinning ecosystem service for agricultural and landscape productivity.

Farmers who adopt management practices that sequester soil carbon stand to gain a benefit from a more productive, sustainable and resilient farming system. There are also opportunities for farmers who utilise management practices that build carbon to earn additional revenue from carbon credits and gaining market entry.

Soil carbon sequestration is a key component of the Australian Government's technology-led emissions reduction policy. It is also included in Australia's National Soil Strategy as a crucial part of efforts to improve soil health.

Soil carbon sequestration means adopting practices – most often in the agricultural sector – that increase the amount of carbon stored in soils. Agricultural management practices might include:

  • increasing plant growth or cover
  • adding compost or mulch
  • decreasing losses through reduced stubble burning or minimal till practices
  • increasing the clay content of sandy soils.

A key challenge is developing sequestration technologies that are cost-effective, and that produce meaningful abatement at national-to-global scales.

International agreements to which Australia is a signatory require reporting of, and actions to reduce, greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors of the economy. These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and the 2016 Paris Agreement.

Australia has made a commitment to Net Zero emissions by 2050. Each year, the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory reports all greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors, and the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF, provides the financial mechanism to incentivise industries to either reduce emissions, or increase sequestration, contributing to the emission reduction targets set under the Paris Agreement. Currently, over 70 per cent of the contracted abatement under the ERF (excluding savanna burning), valued at over $1.6 billion, comes from soil and vegetation management.

Our response

Improved soil carbon methodologies and monitoring

CSIRO has a long history of collaborative soil science research and development of national soil information systems to track the state and trend of our soils.

Our researchers are involved in developing cutting-edge technologies for quantifying carbon sequestration in Australian vegetation and soils. We have extensive experience in field survey design and data collection, development of statistically robust sampling strategies, novel instrumentation for on-site soil carbon measurement, development of empirical models of vegetation biomass, models for the spatial prediction of soil carbon and other soil properties at different spatial scales, and biogeochemical modelling and prediction of sequestration at local to national scales.

To support our research, the team collaborates widely with state and federal government agencies, non-government organisations, universities and the private sector. These collaborations facilitate national-level coordination in research effort, provide opportunities for accessing and sharing key infrastructure, and allow the development of nationally-significant databases on soil and vegetation carbon.

CSIRO and its partners have developed a range of science innovations that seek to reduce the costs of land managers participating in soil and vegetation-based sequestration activities, that seek to improve the accuracy and implementation of the national carbon accounting system, and that provide science-based evidence in support of land-based carbon management policies under the Emissions Reduction Fund. Specific innovations include:

  • National-scale databases and analytics to support improvements in UNFCCC greenhouse gas emissions accounting.
  • National scale digital soil mapping, to support the Australian Government's carbon accounting software tool 'FullCAM' in the Australian Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
  • Biomass mapping, and empirical databases of vegetation biomass and growth to support the FULLCAM in the Australian Greenhouse Gas Inventory.
  • Development and testing of a suite of novel mathematical models for predicting vegetation growth and biomass.
  • New techniques to improve the efficiency and reduce the costs of carbon measurement in soil and vegetation.
  • Quantification of the co-benefits associated with carbon farming.
  • Integration into the FullCAM with new data and algorithms to support national accounting and ERF methodologies.
  • Improved soil sampling and measurement methods for soil carbon accounting, such as LOOC-C - a digital decision support tool that helps farmers identify what Emissions Reduction Fund projects might be suitable for their land.

CSIRO is also active in international soil science through the FAO Global Soil Partnership and CIRCASA (Coordination of International Research Cooperation on Soil Carbon Sequestration). Our researchers work in the Asia-Pacific Region through Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded work and through the Resilience Initiative for Food and Agriculture with Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and Australian National University.

The results

New methodologies and profitable revegetation programs

Collectively, work in this area has resulted in:

  • The development of two new Emissions Reduction Fund methodologies ('Measurement of Soil Carbon Sequestration in Agricultural Systems' and 'Reforestation by Environmental or Mallee Plantings—FullCAM'), stimulating new land-based abatement activity to a value of approximately $110 Million (as of April 2018).
  • An approximate doubling of the profitability of revegetation programs involving mallee and Eucalypt plantings, through updates based on CSIRO research to the FullCAM model leading to more accurate sequestration predictions.
  • Improved scientific basis and transparency of the National Carbon Accounting System, satisfying UNFCCC requirements for ongoing improvement and facilitating smoother international review of Australia's accounting methods.
  • The National Soil Archive is hosted by CSIRO and holds 71,000 samples and associated data. This collection supports the development of new soil sensing technologies and applications. It enabled the development of the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia, which allows national soils models to be run.
  • CSIRO has pioneered farming practices that minimise soil disturbance and maintain or improving soil structure. This includes conservation agriculture that reduces soil degradation and also improves water-use and production.

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